Why “I See Lots of Apartments Going Up” Is Not an Argument Against Building More

Last week on KUOW, former Seattle Times editorial board member Joni Balter took issue with my statement that the reason apartments are so expensive in Seattle is that we simply aren’t building enough of them. “I don’t know, have you been to Ballard lately?” she asked (rhetorically, I think, although the answer is yes I have.) I managed to get out the words, “But the numbers don’t support that. Numbers-wise, we aren’t—” before she interrupted me and directed a question to the other guest: “So here’s a question for you, Tim Burgess…”

That’s cool. I get that the only real response to facts that defy arguments based specious anecdata is to deflect or change the subject, and I’m used to people doing it. “But I know someone who…” is basically always the first response any time I bring up an economic or land-use fact that defies the wisdom of the anecdote. So here’s my response to Joni Balter’s claim that we’re building more than enough housing for everyone who’s moving here, based not on that one time I went to Ballard and barely recognized it anymore, but on numbers.

According to new-ID statistics from the state Department of Licensing, which is a fairly accurate proxy for the in-migration (it fails to count people who don’t update their IDs, like students and short-term residents, so it’s a lowball, which is fine for our purposes), 60,527 people moved into King County from elsewhere (out of county or out of state) in the first ten months of 2017. Taking the monthly average (which varies widely and does not depend strictly on season) and assuming growth of 6,053 people a month for November and December, we arrive at total in-migration to King County of 72,632 people in 2017.

Now let’s look at apartment growth. According to a recent analysis by the Seattle Times, the city is on pace to add a record number of units this year—nearly 9,900 of those in Seattle alone. Overall, King County as a whole is on pace to add just over 10,600 units. Next year, that record pace is expected to continue, with apartment forecasting firm Dupre + Scott, the source for the Times’ information, predicting that more than 12,500 units will open in Seattle.


Notice a difference between those “record” numbers of units opening up and the number of people moving here? Me too. It’s a ratio of about 1 to 7.

I’ve been listening to a great podcast series about the rise of the flat-earth movement—people who literally believe that the earth is shaped like a pizza, with walls around the edges so we don’t fall off. The specifics vary—some flat-earthers think the sky is just a giant dome built by the government, others believe that there is no such thing as “space” and we only think there is because of implanted memories. But all have one thing in common: They rely on an absolute belief in what you can perceive with your senses. Plainly, the horizon is flat because that’s how it looks. Clearly, the earth isn’t spinning because we aren’t dizzy.

Obviously, we’re building more than enough apartments because just look at all that construction.

Except that we aren’t. And the longer we make decisions based on people’s gut feelings about how the way things look, the more inadequate our response to the housing shortage will be.

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19 thoughts on “Why “I See Lots of Apartments Going Up” Is Not an Argument Against Building More”

  1. I think the numbers that you might want to compare are the net increase in # of jobs to housing units including condos and other non-apartment units. The total # of jobs includes those people who probably should be living in Seattle but don’t fit, and the # of units added you can track against the average # of jobs per unit. It’s hard to get exactly those numbers, but you can get the number of construction permits, which is an overestimate in that in some cases those new units are replacing older units.


    That said, those numbers tell basically the same story, and not only that, they correlate extremely well with the rent increases over that time period. I think to get them to line up even better you’d want to include the salary of those jobs as Bryan Kirschner does here:


  2. For anyone who doesn’t understand the supply-demand equation, I propose a simple thought experiment:

    Take the existing number of homes and apartments in Seattle and double them magically. What would happen to the prices? Double again. What would happen to the prices?

  3. Just curious where you think all the additional people are living? The number of people per household has been on a steady decline, and the homeless population seems to be growing a lot slower than your numbers would indicate.

  4. I always listen to Week in Review, and honestly, Erica, you & Joni have got to sort out your palpable dislike for each other. It’s snarky, juvenile, and really unpleasant for listeners. Almost ranks up there with Paul Guppy vs Ijeoma Oluwo.

    1. “Jen,” if you “always listen to Week in Review,” then you know that Joni and I rarely appear on the same show together. And we have no personal animosity toward each other, although that charge is frequently leveled at women who have opposing views on political matters.

  5. Erica,

    I see your point, and I agree in principle, but I would add that there is not a single factor. I do believe rental increases also have to do with certain informal but dependable agreements with landlords have basically been abrogated. I have an interesting story about rental increases and my little efficiency. But the long and short of it is that there needs to be more regulation of landlords and rent and fees if this spiral of supply lagging demand continues. Added to the fact that no single cause is The Cause also is the different game zoning regimes. My sense is SF zoned areas are wielding political power not to allow the density which is then going where current conditions allow. Among other things. There has also been a corporatization of landlords which incentivizes increasing rent vs keeping the same renters. Many “affordable” units are under this regime. rmc

    1. Added thought: And while Balter represents a mindset in Seattle, that statement and dismissal of hers is almost to be expected. She has no incentive to think outside her box like so many Seattle “thought leaders”. I do not know if this is the case in other cities, but it certainly is the case here.

  6. Whatever the data may show (and yes, we should be looking at net in-migration, not gross numbers), the larger question is what to do about the problem. Some urbanists believe the solution is to abolish single-family zoning; allow construction of apartments anywhere. That would be the magic pill that would quickly eliminate the disparity between supply and demand. I don’t believe that myself, but I’m curious what Erica’s thinking is.

    1. Roger, I don’t believe in abolishing zoning (in part because it paves the way for restrictive covenants like they have in Houston). I do believe that single-family zones could easily increase the city’s housing capacity if duplexes and triplexes were allowed, for example—as they are in Portland and many, many, many other cities. There is a lot of space between “high-rises everywhere!” and “nothing about my neighborhood can ever change,” which is what single-family absolutists argue.

  7. “early 9,900 of those in Seattle alone. Overall, King County as a whole is on pace to add just over 10,600 units.”

    For clarification, the 10,600 number is must be in addition to Seattle numbers, right? 700 new units for all the rest of King County seems way low.

  8. In response to the comments about net migration: We don’t have census numbers for 2017 yet, but the July 2015-July 2016 net population growth in King County was just under 36,000. (https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?src=bkmk) Meanwhile, neighboring Pierce County gained nearly 19,000 people and Snohomish County gained just over 17,000. The region is growing on a NET basis, and King County remains the driver of growth. In terms of both adult in-migration (the driver’s license data) and total population growth (the census data), population continues to far outpace construction. Adult in-migration and total growth are obviously not precisely apples to apples, as a single adult who moves here for a job in the booming tech field, for example, will most likely require one unit of housing, whereas a couple who has a child will not necessarily need to move into a different place.

  9. I like your (gasp!) facts-based analysis. The same can be said for why people don’t believe in or are motivated to do anything about climate change. What we see is the weather we can experience around us. While there may be a connection between the weather we experience at any point in time with the global rise of average temperature that is destroying our planet, they are not the same. Yeah, I know it’s obvious but I had to say it.

  10. I attended the Wallingford Community Council meeting last night (the MHA EIS suit being a *major* topic of discussion) and one of the members spent a LOT of time explaining that she had walked “every single block” in the urban village there, that she had recorded the addresses where there was construction, had gone to the DCI website and added up all of the numbers and it was roughly around 2,000 units coming online. She seemed to think that her research had proven that there’s more than ENOUGH being built so why do we need to expand the urban villages or why should Wallingford have to have more construction in their neighborhood? I think the same could be said for MOST of the people in Seattle — they really have NO IDEA how fast the city/county/region is growing. There is no realization that, literally, housing delayed is housing denied…

  11. I don’t disagree that there is an affordable apartment deficit in King County.
    But your numbers are not “net” numbers. They are just gross influx numbers not taking into account attrition and out migration decreases. In this article from March of this year, the “net-new” influx was only at about 8,500 folks for King County. (ref: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/data/new-residents-pour-in-pierce-snohomish-counties-top-the-nation/)
    So there is equal peril in credibility, if you take a flawed approach to representing the actual magnitude of growth.

  12. WA DOL data notwithstanding, the apartment vacancy rate is increasing: https://seattle.curbed.com/2017/9/29/16386922/seattle-apartment-vacancy-rate and https://www.seattletimes.com/business/real-estate/seattle-rent-hikes-slow-amid-apartment-boom-but-average-two-bedroom-tops-2000/
    Where do you think all those thousands of new people are living? Seattle/King County’s problem is not a lack of housing units; our problem is a lack of affordable housing units. Even if skyrocketing rents moderate at the top, it won’t help middle and lower income families and individuals.

    1. You don’t build housing for NOW. You build housing for 10, 20, 30 years down the road. We haven’t.

      It’s a huge reason why Seattle is experiencing such crushing housing costs. The city – forced by neighborhood groups preserving their suburban lifestyles with urban amenities – backed off from development and actually DOWN-zoned several areas that could have taken on more construction. There was much *less* construction than necessary for a generation. When the boom times hit – not unlike when Seattle was founded – housing costs are going through the roof.

      Public-funding for housing started drying up during the Reagan administration and has increasingly shrunk since then. It was part and parcel of the New Federalism, moving social spending to states and cities because Milton Friedman conservatives knew that these sources for funding would dry up eventually. And they have. Between 2010 and 2016, 60% of the affordable housing stock in the U.S. went away.

      So the “don’t build any housing unless it’s affordable” is actually a canard. It’s an excuse NOT to build ANY housing – usually spoken by someone who is comfortably housed, possibly an owner. If you love Seattle as much as I do or anyone who is desperate to try and live here, why would you deny them or anyone who wants to COME here that dream? I’m not a dream hoarder, I’m a dream enabler. We WANT people to come here, to make Seattle the best damn place on earth to live. What’s wrong with that?

      Housing delayed is housing denied…

      1. The mismatch between supply and demand is because we invited many thousands of new jobs without consideration of the need for housing. (Ignoring the other externalities also not addressed, like transit.) I don’t see anyone arguing not to build more housing; that’s a straw dog to kick. The real arguments are over where, how, who it’s for, and who’s paying for it.

        The “New Federalism” you describe is closely akin to the neoliberalism that is the dominant political-economic narrative in Seattle. See https://www.amazon.com/Brief-History-Neoliberalism-David-Harvey/dp/0199283273

  13. While I don’t doubt there are more coming than apartments built, should there not be an attempt to estimate the number of of people leaving town or otherwise leaving the pool?

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